Because cheese.

Since my Because Reasons post, I’ve been collecting examples. I’m sure a search would turn up more, but I’m enjoying collecting them in their native habitats.

“well, okay, maybe not the dairy free part, because cheese”

This was a sentence fragment from an online messageboard.

“I had catastrophic coverage, but no maternity coverage (private insurance because self-employed)…”

Also a sentence from an online messageboard. This sentence is ambiguous syntactically; it could actually be from an older pattern which is referred to in the Language Log post, a kind of “x because y” pattern.

Because, honestly, FUCK the whole idea of cooking an expensive and time-consuming holiday meal for people who cancel at the last minute because: “paperwork.”

But that’s okay, because – bourbon.

These were also sourced from the same messageboard, and are interesting because internal punctuation.* Internal punctuation is also found in a lot of the Languange Log examples. It suggests that the writer knows that something is being elided, at least semantically and perhaps syntactically.

“If you want to go to the next step in the route manually, you now swipe from left to right instead of tapping on the arrow. Because gestures.

This is from an article about Google Maps published in July 2013.

No, go away. I just want a salad because ranch.

Eating: A manifesto, from Rookie Magazine, July 2012

The most important thing about questpunk is to get plenty of sleep, because dreams.

A tweet from October 2013.

“Why is it spelled that way?”
“Because English.”

This one was a verbal exchange between a coworker paraphrasing her six-year-old, and me.

“Why there is a baby rat in my closet?”
“Because cats.”

Quoted dialogue from a Facebook post written by a friend of mine, November 2013.

Hope to see everybody at @busproject‘s “Jingle Bus” this year! Because DEMOCRACY.

Also a tweet, from November 2013.

*Originally I wrote this in Standard English as “because of the internal punctuation”, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to change it.

The professional hazards of a linguist: Chomsky

One of the professional hazards of being a linguist is being asked what you think of Chomsky.* I never have a good answer because we didn’t actually study Chomsky in school. The linguistics department at Rice does what’s called ‘functional linguistics’, and Chomsky is ‘formal linguistics’. The names have to do with having different opinions about how language evolved and is produced, and why languages are similar to each other, but the explanation is a little esoteric.** At any rate, we didn’t learn much about him, and I didn’t get any clear idea of what he thought until later, when I read an interesting book called The Linguistics Wars.

Today, though, I realized on re-reading The Most Human Human that the author captures a distinction in computer science that I wasn’t aware of, which has a lot of similarity to the way the formal/functional distinction plays out in practice (as opposd to the esoteric theory): the distinction between computability theory and complexity theory. In computability theory, your concern is determining what is possible or impossible to compute, according to the principles of computation. Complexity theory deals with whether you could actually build a computer that could compute something, in, say, less than the total age of the universe. Chomskyan linguistics is similar to computability theory, and the type of linguistics I studied is more similar to complexity theory. Chomsky wasn’t interested in linguistic performance — he’s very clear about that. He studied what is and isn’t possible in language, under very idealized conditions. In practice, it means he mostly studied nicely-written sentences, and determined if they were allowed or not, and what that means about the language. (So, also, he mostly studies syntax.) Functional linguists study something more like complexity theory: what people actually do, when they’re speaking and writing, under the often sub-ideal conditions of the world. So they study speech errors and hesitations and the circumstances under which a seemingly-nonsensical sentence might make perfect sense and a lot of things that Chomskyans tend to just say are irrelevant.

I find this comparison very helpful, because (along with a better grounding in Chomskyan theory that I got from reading The Linguistics Wars) it helped me get beyond my knee-jerk belief that Chomsky is clearly irrelevant. Computability theory is very interesting. It’s where things like the Halting Problem and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem live. But computability is sometimes not very relevant, if you could compute something but it would require more time than the age of the universe. Likewise, there are very large domains of linguistic endeavor that Chomsky simply ignored. Where I disagree with him is that he tended to think that these areas are not important at all — that performance is incidental — whereas I think it’s critical to understanding what language really is. So my answer is something like: Chomsky is good as far as he goes, but he doesn’t go very far in the real world — the way that computability theory is great as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far in the real world in which you’d like your computer program to finish before next week (let alone before the end of the universe).

* Not the most common one, though; that would be the question “How many languages do you speak?” My answer to this is decidedly unimpressive.

** In short: Functional linguists think it’s because language serves a common function, regardless of its specific implementation (that function being human communication), and that it evolved from and/or is produced by a collection of adapted general skills. Formal linguists believe that languages are similar because we all have a specific brain module called a language acquisition device — ie, that language is a specialized skill, not a general one, and that languages are similar because they’re all produced by this special module. I think it’s possible that both are true, although having been educated by functionalists, I tend to wonder whether the formal bit is actually necessary.

Mistaken beliefs about myself: poetry edition

One of the questions that I find myself perennially engaging with is about whether we are the authorities on ourselves, and what epistemic status our knowledge about ourselves has vs. others’ knowledge of us.

I was reminded of this when I was out running this morning along the Alameda Ridge and went by one of the Poetry Posts. The owner had chosen e.e. cummings “in Just-“ to put in the post, and I stopped to read it, appreciating its timeliness and the lovely rhythm of the poem. I’ve heard it before, but not for years, and never in the outdoors in the moment of “Just- spring”.

After I stopped to read it I remembered that I’ve said to myself many times that I “don’t like poetry”, by which I mean if you’d asked me “What do you think of poetry as an art form?” I probably would say that I generally find it pretty hard to engage with. I don’t like to read poetry the way that I like to read novels or nonfiction prose. But actually, there are many individual poems, and many poets, whose work I enjoy — like e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Longfellow, Wordsworth (whose “Daffodils” was in yet another poetry post I saw on my run today; also timely and beautiful), Frost, and Keats.  My yoga teacher reads poetry to us sometimes, and I’ve enjoyed that (she likes Mary Oliver). I also write poetry myself, mostly haiku, because I like to capture beautiful moments that I can’t photograph. And I always stop to read the poetry posts when I see them!

In retrospect, seems strange to think that I would have said I “don’t like poetry” until I suddenly realized that it didn’t seem like an apt description of my experience! The idea of not liking poetry was, I guess, a story I came up with to explain why I often don’t enjoy reading poems (which is true). What I think I was missing is that for me, appreciating and enjoying poetry comes in the form of ‘liking’ poems because they resonate with me in the moment that I experience them, not in the form of enjoying reading them in sequence at arbitrary times. It’s an excellent example of a case where I didn’t have a very clear sense of what my experience really was, and was definitely not a clear-eyed authority on myself. But now I am. Right? :-)

The problem is that DFW really doesn’t hit the mark

The Urbanophile reprinted a post from the Where Blog (which looks like a neat blog) that caught my attention, since it drew a comparison between language and urban development.

I don’t know that much about urban development yet, but it fascinates me, and I do know something about language. The problem is that the something that I know suggests that this may be a poor analogy.

Drew writes:

Hence DFW’s conclusion. We can’t assume those planning our cities are credible just because they’re making the plans. But we need rules and guidance—an entirely hands-off approach will create interesting cities with multitudes of serious problems.

Here he’s analogizing between urban planners and prescriptive linguists. But David Foster Wallace’s essay (and further works), wherein he arrives at the conclusion that prescriptivism is needed, has been taken apart by better linguists and bloggers than I, Language Log and Language Hat. Language Log has a whole category called Prescriptivist Poppycock.

This all suggests a rather different analogy between urban planners and prescriptivists, namely that they are talking nonsense well over half the time and for the most part we’d be better off without them, because the object of their concern is perfectly capable of developing organically and effectively, entirely on its own, in ways that serve its function.

For what it’s worth, that doesn’t strike me as particularly valid either. But since it’s an equally good, or maybe better, description of the relationship of prescriptivists to language, I’d recommend that urbanists be careful taking prescriptivists as their model!

Nevertheless, I think Drew makes a valid point in the final paragraph:

Maybe this is why urbanists keep returning to Jane Jacobs. She reconciles these approaches in The Death and Life of Great American Cities by merging a Descriptivist’s eye for the way cities actually are (not how they should be) with a Prescriptivist’s desire to make cities better—by nurturing what’s already good in those cities rather than trying to recreate them.

In agreeing with the final idea, I might resurrect the analogy at a more sophisticated level: both urban planners and prescriptivists ostensibly want to make things better, and both can easily end up doing nothing of the sort, because the systems they are trying to manipulate are organic and complex and don’t necessarily respond the way you expect to manipulation.

Someone’s ones

I noticed this morning that in a conversation yesterday I used the phrase “some ones that” when I could just as easily have some “some that” (or “ones that”):

I bought new gloves
some ones from REI that are lobster-claw

I was curious to see if this is common. It’s at least common enough that most of the top ten Google hits for “some ones that” are for this construction. It gets fewer hits than “some that”, which is clearly the more straightforward and official construction (all the “some ones that” hits are clearly from user-created content, compared to “some that” which brings up titles of articles, books, etc.

It may not really be produced intentionally — perhaps we are going to say “some [nouns] that” but realize that the referent is too close? I’m not always a fan of assuming people don’t intend to produce what they produced, but I don’t see otherwise why “some that” wouldn’t be produced instead.

When you say “as in”

” ‘With any luck we will be able to ftp some suitable software and get it running on the Tera.’
‘The Terror?’
‘Tera. As in Teraflops.’
‘That does me no good at all. When you say “as in” you are supposed to give me something more familiar to relate it to.’ “

I got a Portland Water Bureau Drinking Water Quality Report in my mailbox today. There’s a section where they list contaminants, including Radium, which is measured in picocuries per liter. There’s also a “Definitions” section which defines picocuries per liter, among other things. The definition is:
“Picocurie is a measurement of radioactivity. One picocurie is a trillion times smaller than one curie.”

Note to the PWB: please see the above Cryptonomicon excerpt for my reaction to this definition.

Peevishly honored

I got linked by Arnold Zwicky!

The trackback ended up on the first entry in that month, because his link doesn’t lead to the entry itself, but rather to all entries for the month of August, of which that one appears to be first, but is actually the last. In blogging “the last shall be first”, I suppose.

And now I’m peevishly complaining about someone blogging about my peeveblogging. But I’m still not peeveblogging about peeveblogging about peeves.

Resumptive pronoun hunt resumed

I haven’t found any new written resumptive pronouns in a while, but I discovered one today on the TinyURL website:

Are you posting something that you don’t want people to know what the URL is because it might give away that it’s an affiliate link?

Well, if you are, I suggest that you not use TinyURL — be honest. But feel free to use a resumptive pronoun while doing so.

Back to happier news

Language Log extols Edinburgh Uni’s results in the UK’s RAE

“But with these figures out, even these shy people will have to admit, if pressed, that if you want to study in the biggest language sciences community in the U.K., and the best one as judged by volume of work judged to be of world-leading quality, it looks like you should make plans to head for Edinburgh.”

As a graduate, all I can say is, heck yeah.